Friday, May 27, 2011

A Poetic Presentation of The Active Intellect - A Poetic Description In Mishlei According To Rav Sa'adyah Gaon.

The concept of Sechel Hapoel – Active Intellect is difficult to grasp for us who no longer accept Aristotelian philosophy. I came across a comment of Resag on a verse in Mishlei Chapter 8 quoted in a note by Rav Kafieh on Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (HBV) which I think is very helpful and also presents the concept in Jewish terms.

כב  יְהוָה--קָנָנִי, רֵאשִׁית דַּרְכּוֹ:    קֶדֶם מִפְעָלָיו מֵאָז.
22 The LORD created me at the outset of His way, the first of His works of old.
כג  מֵעוֹלָם, נִסַּכְתִּי מֵרֹאשׁ--    מִקַּדְמֵי-אָרֶץ.
23 In remote eons I was shaped at the start of the first things of earth.
כד  בְּאֵין-תְּהֹמוֹת חוֹלָלְתִּי;    בְּאֵין מַעְיָנוֹת, נִכְבַּדֵּי-מָיִם.
24 When there were no deeps, I was spawned; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
כה  בְּטֶרֶם הָרִים הָטְבָּעוּ;    לִפְנֵי גְבָעוֹת חוֹלָלְתִּי.
25 Before the mountains were anchored down, before hills I was spawned;
כו  עַד-לֹא עָשָׂה, אֶרֶץ וְחוּצוֹת;    וְרֹאשׁ, עַפְרוֹת תֵּבֵל.
26 He had not yet made earth and open land, and the world’s first clods of soil.
כז  בַּהֲכִינוֹ שָׁמַיִם, שָׁם אָנִי;    בְּחֻקוֹ חוּג, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם.
27 When He established the heavens, I was there; when He set a circle upon the face of the deep,
כח  בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל;    בַּעֲזוֹז, עִינוֹת תְּהוֹם.
28 When He made firm the skies above, when the fountains of the deep showed their might,
כט  בְּשׂוּמוֹ לַיָּם, חֻקּוֹ, וּמַיִם, לֹא יַעַבְרוּ-פִיו;    בְּחוּקוֹ, מוֹסְדֵי אָרֶץ.
29 When He gave to the sea His decree, that the waters should not transgress His commandment, when He appointed the foundations of the earth;
ל  וָאֶהְיֶה אֶצְלוֹ, אָמוֹן:    וָאֶהְיֶה שַׁעֲשׁוּעִים, יוֹם יוֹם; מְשַׂחֶקֶת לְפָנָיו בְּכָל-עֵת.
30 And I was by Him, an intimate; I was His delight day after day, playing before Him at all times,
לא  מְשַׂחֶקֶת, בְּתֵבֵל אַרְצוֹ;    וְשַׁעֲשֻׁעַי, אֶת-בְּנֵי אָדָם.
31 Playing in the world, His earth and my delight with humankind {P}
(Full Disclosure: Though I copied the above from Mechon Mamre, I edited the English translation wherever I thought it would help for clarity using the Robert Alter excellent translation of the Books of Wisdom. I did not accept his suggested alterations to the Masoretic text.)

These verses are part of a series of short essays about Chochma – wisdom.  Resag in his Pirush explains as follows:

“If we consider, as logic dictates and the verses clarify, that the Creator made everything with wisdom and considering that [creation is] complete and perfect, we can accept as true the prophet’s declaration that she [wisdom], must have preceded all creation.”

Resag is explaining that the verse is indeed suggesting that wisdom existed before anything physical. This understanding of the verse conforms to the Midrash Breishit Rabah that illustrates the idea by suggesting that God looked into the Torah using it as a blueprint to create the world.

That is so because everything was created thanks to wisdom and she was there at the first instant of time when it came into existence, for time itself was created through wisdom.”

The science, the concepts that underlie all things that exist can be visualized as a separate entity that must precede everything that comes into being if not in time at least hierarchically. Time itself is one such existent brought into being by wisdom.

“Although wisdom itself does not really exist independently, it is however a necessary component of every creation that God created. [The prophet] then lists the actions [of the seven days] of creation. He describes the first day with מִקַּדְמֵי-אָרֶץ and בַּהֲכִינוֹ שָׁמַיִם – [the creation of heaven and earth]. The separation of the waters [on the second day is alluded to] with בְּחֻקוֹ חוּג, עַל-פְּנֵי תְהוֹם. Let the waters gather creating the seas [of the third day] with בְּשׂוּמוֹ לַיָּם, חֻקּוֹ. Let there be lights in the vaults of the heaven [of the fourth day] with בְּאַמְּצוֹ שְׁחָקִים מִמָּעַל…. Wisdom now declares with pride and saysAnd I was by Him, an intimate” for she is the tool He uses to innovate all that He innovates, using her to create, bring forth and into existence everything. [The prophet] also depicts metaphorically that wisdom rejoices daily, because she is present for everything that is created on a daily basis, renewing herself and rejoicing with every moment of time as it continuously comes into existence. That is so because she is the essence of every creation and every split moment of time.”        

As the prophet contemplates the world around him, he perceives the boundless wisdom that underlies every little component of that world. He marvels at how they all interact with each other insuring their collective continued existence. Even time itself, the measurement of change of the physical world, is essentially a function of that same wisdom. The prophet sees that wisdom as the connector between the world and its Creator as it is His wisdom that underlies every bit of existence. He metaphorically describes wisdom as basking in the results of its plans, seeing itself as an intimate of both the Creator and His creations.

She [wisdom] then deciphers the metaphor. She says, “When I suggested that I rejoiced, I did not mean I myself did so for I am not an entity. I was talking about my friends and surroundings - Playing in the world, His earth”. When I said that I was playing, I did not refer to my own essence for I do not have any essence; I was talking about those who deserve me and possess me namely humankind”. All this is an expression of praise and glory of the wise men, for their deeds are deeds that [perpetuate] existence.”    

Wisdom is the connector between man and God through God’s creation. God’s wisdom permeates everything including man, and the wise man in his self-awareness, perceives that wisdom, internalizes it and acts according to that wisdom in a constructive manner.

I think that this is a beautiful and masterful description of the Sechel Hapoel – the Active Intellect.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Yediah And Emunah - Resag On Belief and Demonstration -

I started reading Hanivchar Be’emunot Vede’ot (HBV) by Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag). It is a most rewarding experience which I will try to share as I come across ideas that captivate me. HBV was written in Arabic about two years after Resag wrote his commentary on Sefer Yetzira. Resag’s style is to support everything he proposes, directly from Tanach, quoting and then interpreting verses extensively.  Resag also composed the Tafsir, a translation into Arabic of Tanach, accompanied by a full commentary. Not all the commentary is available but a lot of work is ongoing in reconstructing from where it is quoted by others to complement the extant parts of the commentary. Resag’s interpretations of verses are original and the comments on verses in the HBV are many times complementary to the Pirush, at others novel. 

Note: I want to caution that these posts are written before I had a chance to read the whole sefer. I read it years ago and referred back to chapters and subjects many times in the last few years, but this is the first systematic read in a long time. My comments should therefore be taken with caution and I have a feeling my opinions and understanding of Resag may change as I go along.

Here is a segment in the introduction discussing belief and knowledge. (Translation is mine from Rav Kafieh’s Hebrew translation of the original Arabic).

Know you who are reading this book, May God grant you grace, that the rationale for studying and exploring matters related to our beliefs is to fulfill two goals. One is so that we can verify in actu through [demonstrated] knowledge that which we already know as taught to us by God’s prophets and the second is so that we can refute any that argue against us in matters of our beliefs. God informed us through His prophets, all that we need to know regarding our beliefs, authenticating their prophecy through signs and portents, and thereafter commanded us that we demonstrate [logically for ourselves] these matters and remember them. He also told us that our study and exploration would lead us to verify all that we were told by His messengers giving us assurances that it is impossible for those who argue against us to contradict our religion or those [among us] who have doubts about our beliefs to argue against our beliefs.”     

In the preceding segment, Resag showed that there is a religious obligation to demonstrate for ourselves through logical arguments that which we are commanded to believe and ignore the cautionary warnings of those who worry that speculation may lead to heresy. He now explains that this fear is not only unfounded but shows a lack of confidence that our beliefs are indeed true. If we accept the scriptures and their authors as God’s prophets authenticated by their performance of “signs and portents”, we should feel secure that no one could prove us wrong. I find it interesting that Resag melds the two – co-religionists who have doubts and followers of other religions who argue against our religion – assuring us that should they honestly look for the truth they will find that our beliefs are true and will stand up to all scrutiny. Resag then uses Yeshayahu 44:6-8 in support of his argument which he interprets as follows -

ח  אַל-תִּפְחֲדוּ, וְאַל-תִּרְהוּ--הֲלֹא מֵאָז הִשְׁמַעְתִּיךָ וְהִגַּדְתִּי, וְאַתֶּם עֵדָי; הֲיֵשׁ אֱלוֹהַּ מִבַּלְעָדַי, וְאֵין צוּר בַּל-יָדָעְתִּי.
8 Do not be frightened do not be shaken! Have I not from old predicted to you? I foretold and you are My witnesses. Is there any god then but me? There is no other rock; I know none!

He [Yeshayahu in the name of God] said; do not be afraid from the numbers and strength of your opponents …. Do not be shaken by the essence of their arguments and of their proofs, consider that I predicted to you future occurrences and told[1] you of past happenings…. He then said “you are My witnesses”, referring to the signs, marvels and great portents that they experienced …. He then said, “Is there any god then but me?” meaning that should you at times wonder about some of the past and the future events I shared with you, thinking that they were not so. That fear would be warranted were I not the sole creator, allowing you to wonder whether I knew all the details. However, [that cannot be the case] considering that I am one and alone, My knowledge encompasses everything that I did and will do. He furthermore said, “There is no rock I know not”[2], included in that [word צוּר] are the respected people and the wise amongst them as the word צוּר is used [allegorically] for respected people for example …. He tells us with this that as God knows all wise and respected men and all that they know, it is therefore impossible that they should come up with anything that would disprove your beliefs and laws considering that I [God] know all and I am the one who told you all this. It is from this perspective that we explore and study [logically demonstrate] that which our Creator has told us”.

The argument seems to be circular. God tells us about the past, namely that the world is not eternal, that it was created and the reason we believe that is so, is because He is the sole Creator and therefore knows all! Also, the last sentence requires some clarification; what does he mean by this apparently a priori perspective? However, before dealing with that Resag appears to digress and asks –

“If all religious matters as told to us by God, are demonstrable through correct research and exploration, what is the wisdom of Him informing us through prophecy authenticated by physical rather than rational proofs? The answer is that the Wise One knows that knowledge acquired through study requires a lot of time and had he left it up to us to learn [these truths], we would have remained ignorant for a long time. Indeed, many would never reach a resolution because of their handicaps, some for lack of ability while others would become mired in uncertainty and questions.  For that reason, God relieved us from this responsibility, sending us His messenger informing us [of these truths], showing us unquestionable signs and portents, ones that cannot be denied as it says “you saw that I spoke with you from heaven” (Shemot 20:22). He also spoke with His messenger in front of our eyes, compelling us to believe in him always as it says …. We were therefore required to accept these religious matters and all they encompass immediately, relying on what our senses experienced, compelling us to accept this reliable transmission. We were then commanded to study [these matters] at our own speed until we demonstrate logically to ourselves [these truths].”

Resag addresses the obvious question first. If these theological truths are demonstrable, and that must be so if there is an obligation to demonstrate these beliefs to ourselves, why then did God present them to us as matters of belief? Why did He not let us work them out on our own?  As Rav Kafieh notes, Rambam in MN 1:34 follows the same line of reasoning and offers a similar answer. If everyone were required to establish philosophical truths starting from scratch, starting as a tabula rasa without even a foreseeable endpoint, most of us would never get to the truth. We are therefore told where our speculation, if performed carefully and thoroughly, will lead us to and commanded to accept these truths at first on Moshe’s say so with the expectation that in time we will demonstrate to ourselves their veracity.

The next question that comes to mind is that we are asked to spend a lifetime following a strict set of rules that cover every aspect of one’s life and work to overcome personal biases with the goal that one speculate towards a foregone conclusion. How is one to know that at the end of the road he will not discover that all this was a lie and a life, nay lives were wasted?

This is where “signs and portents” play their role. They authenticate the prophecy by confirming that the source of the message is God who should know the Truth considering He is the Creator of everything. It gives the seeker a certain amount of psychic comfort and confidence to know that the end goal he is seeking comes from an impeccable source. However, theology dependent on revelation-based belief should only be transitory until the seeker develops personal convictions using logical processes. Because without that a person that uses his God given brains cannot shake off a kernel of doubt. As Rambam says in Hilchot Yesodei Hatorah 8:1  שהמאמין על פי האותות--יש בליבו דופי, שאפשר שייעשה האות בלאט וכישוף
One whose beliefs are based on signs cannot avoid having doubts. Those signs could be a sleight of hand or magic.” Skepticism is healthy.

Although Resag does not spell it out here, but taking into account his understanding of what a reliable demonstration consists of, as discussed elsewhere in HBV, I think that he holds that beliefs have to be tested against reality - if they do not contradict reality, we can accept them as true. That is how I read the end of the first piece I translated above “it is impossible for those who argue against us to contradict our religion or those [among us] who have doubts about our beliefs to argue against our beliefs.” I will talk more about his position on demonstration in the future.

Here again we see Resag aligned pretty much with the thought we see in Rambam.

[1] Resag translates וְהִגַּדְתִּי – literally as I told, not foretold as in JPS translation
[2] Resag translates, וְאֵין צוּר בַּל-יָדָעְתִּי differently then JPS

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Created Light in Rav Sa'adyah Gaon's Commentary to Sefer Yetzirah

In an earlier post, I quoted Rav Sa’adyah Gaon (Resag) explaining the concept of creation presented by Sefer Yetzira (SY) as words and numbers being etched in air thus creating things. At the time I suggested that “air” is a stand in for “space” and I also pointed out that, Resag cautions us not to take these images literally. They are only concepts that SY translates into something we humans can perceive in our mind. As I read on in SY, in Perek 4 Mishna 1 Resag returns to the subject of air/space in more detail and introduces the concept of “created matter”, – Davar Nivra - which was subsequently discussed by Rambam in MN as “created light” – Ohr Nivra. I believe this will shed a new light on Rambam’s usage of the term and its meaning.

Note: the following quotes are my English translation of a Hebrew translation of an Arabic translation. Rav Kafieh in his usual thorough way has given us a formidable tool. SY original is Hebrew. Resag translated it into Arabic. Rav Kafieh translated the Arabic back into Hebrew. The Hebrew translation of the Arabic translation is not identical to the original Hebrew. We witness the obvious: translations are interpretations and we cannot always rely on one to give us the true intention of the original. A caution to those who come to definite conclusions about the author’s intentions based on translations e.g. MN and Pirush Hamishna for one. Here is the original Mishna[1] and my translation of the R. Kafieh retranslated Resag translation.

עשר ספירות בלימה, אחת רוח אלקים חיים חי עולמים נכון כסאו מאז, ברוך ומבורך שמו תמיד לעולם ועד. וזו היא רוח הקדש,

“Parallel to the ten defined numbers, first there is the living God’s will, the life(force) of the worlds whose throne is there from beginning to end, blessed be His name forever. That is the holy will.”

Note how Resag translates “Ruach” – will. Resag then proceeds to explain that the numbers that are visualized as the tools used in the creation of the universe are there because of the will of the living God - רוח אלקים חיים.  The idea is that there was no physical activity on the part of God other than His willing things into existence. Resag explains:

Saying these three things about the Creator - חי עולמים נכון כסאו מאז, ברוך ומבורך שמו -
imparts a great secret. That is, it is telling us how we should visualize in our minds the existence of God, by using a metaphor as an approximation but not as [a] corporeal [depiction]. SY suggests that we visualize the relationship of God to the world just as we see the life force in its relationship to a living thing. We could therefore say metaphorically that He is the life force of the universe. From that, we can now move to the next level, the level of the intellect, and refer to Him as the intellect of the universe. The idea is to help us understand that a living thing, especially one who thinks, its body is more naturally refined [adin in Hebrew.] and more advanced than other bodies [e.g. plants or inanimate objects- DG], allowing for a life force to attach itself to it.  That life force can now sustain an intellect, because the life force is more refined than the body and the intellect is more refined than the life force. This conclusion leads us to visualizing that air, which is simple and refined, is the substance in which God’s will, namely His ability, spreads creating in it and giving it mobility just as the life force gives mobility to the body. The Creator is present in all this just as the intellect is present in the life force, directing it. Therefore, the closest metaphor for Him is that He is the intellect of the universe. Just as the intellect is not divisible even if the body is, so too the Creator is indivisible, even if the universe should divide. Just as the intellect does not die when the body dies so too the Creator would not cease to exist should the universe cease to. Just like the intellect, although is part of the soul, it is superior directing it, so too the Creator, although He is found in everything, He is superior over all and everything is directed by him. And just as the intellect permeates every part of the body, every bone, ligament, every dense matter, all are impacted by its direction so too the Creator is found in everything; no mountain, sea, or dense entity is without Him, just like air is everywhere… With these metaphors, the opinions of the believers will be strengthened in accepting that God is everywhere… that He watches over mankind’s actions… that He hearkens to every prayer for He is with the supplicant[2]…” 

We humans cannot apprehend something that is completely abstract. For us to recognize something as existent we have to visualize it in our terms. Without that, we will always question whether the entity we deduced logically or intuitively to exist, really does exist. SY is teaching us how to accomplish this by offering visualizations of God in a metaphorical sense; comparing His existence to the most abstract thing we know - our intellect. Just as our intellect resides in us so too do we place God’s will, the result of which we can perceive by looking at our environment, in air that permeates everything around us. The “air” Resag uses in this metaphor so far is the real air that surrounds us, the one we breathe.

We focused our [minds until now on the] idea that God is found everywhere using the palpable air we are surrounded by [as a metaphor]. We now [turn to] the even more refined “air” but also only as an approximation and allegory and not in a corporeal or exact perspective. The Scriptures refer to this second refined “air” as glory, “His glory fills the whole earth” (Yeshayahu 11:2) … The nation refers to it as Shechinah … and the author of this book refers to it as רוח אלקים חיים – the will of the living God… It is through this second refined “air” that the words of prophecy are brought and all the wonders are revealed to the prophets…. That is a “created thing” without doubt for anything that is not God is created.”
Resag is systematically leading us to accept the existence of an entity that is physically non-existent. He takes us to the limits of physicality and then tells us that this “refined air” is only imaginary, “an approximation and allegory”. In other words, when we use the words glory, Shechinah or anything similar as it relates to God, It is nothing but a mental visualization. We picture a presence as a proxy for God not that God has place and thus presence.  The “created thing” is a creation of our imagination, a visualization that allows us to conceive the “existence” of such an entity. Having visualized this “created thing” or “created light” we can now conceive a connection between that unknowable and unreachable entity and us.

And it is with this second refined air which is to the world as is the life force to man, that Moshe heard the “created words” in the visible air which is referred to as “the voice of the living God” (Devarim 5:23)…. And from it comes the knowledge of wisdom that God grants to His chosen…. It also is the source of courage and strength that God grants to the ones He wants to [grant]…”   

The way I understand Resag is that in the process of speculation about God and creation, we humans create in our minds certain pictures that help us actualize abstract concepts. We have to be careful and keep in mind that we are visualizing “created things”, “created lights” and hearing “created sounds”. We are seeing things created in our mind and although the experience is so intense that it appears real, it is no more than a mental vision. That is why he emphasizes several times that all these descriptions of “created things” are “an approximation and allegory”.  

I know that in other writings Resag comes across differently. It would appear in those places that he believes that God creates light, sound and entities to represent Him, a quite difficult idea to swallow, at least to me; here he is quite clear that it is only visualization. The commentary on SY was written about two years before his Emunot Vede’ot, according to Rav Kafieh, and was written for a more sophisticated audience, the reader of SY. I feel comfortable reading it as a standalone, presenting his undiluted opinion.  With this in mind, I also understand why Rambam accepts the concept in numerous places in MN although he insists at the same time that no physicality can be adduced to God. The preferred approach would be “negative apprehension” – Yediah Shelilit – but as a less sophisticated alternative, “created light” is acceptable.  

[1] It is also important to know that SY comes in a variety of different versions with quite marked variances. I adapted here to the version used by Resag. The different versions also have different numbering of chapters and mishnot. 
[2] This reminds me of Rambam in MN 3;52 “Man does not sit, move, and occupy himself when he is alone in his house, as he sits, moves and occupies himself when he is in the presence of a great king…”